Another Word: In Praise of Taking it Slow
I’m here to talk to you about the Slow Fiction Movement. Okay, that’s not a thing, but it should be. Much as slow food encompasses every aspect of production, culminating with consumption, the idea of slow fiction speaks to every stage of a story’s life cycle.
I should clarify that I’m not talking about drafting speed, nor productivity. Go about your initial drafting at whatever pace works for you. Bradbury believed in writing the first draft with gusto, but didn’t discourage editing after that energetic outpouring of prose. His “don’t be afraid to explore the attic” is closer to what I’m getting at; you never reach the attic if you don’t leave enough time to get past the ground floor.
No, I’m here to speak for any slowdown that helps you make your story the best story it can be, whether that’s at the idea phase or the first draft, or sometime after that initial draft has made it to the page, after you’ve celebrated the successful translation of inspiration to prose, when you’re still excited about what you’ve accomplished.
When writing to a theme or prompt, it’s often said that you should discard the first idea that comes to mind. The first is superficial, the obvious thing, a story that is writable but not necessarily worth writing. Give the prompt time to rattle around with everything else in your head and you may come up with something far better. The same goes for non-prompted stories: your first idea, as shiny as it is, is often the easy version. Ted Chiang has said in interviews that he plays with a concept for a long time before even starting to draft; the ideas that stick with him are the ones he takes the time to write. Connie Willis has advised her Clarion students to think of their stories just before they go to bed, so the subconscious gets a bite at it.
Some stories simply need more time. The ideas need breathing room, or the author needs time to develop the skills to write it. I took my novelette “Wind Will Rove” to the Sycamore Hill peer workshop in 2015, then put it aside for a year before revising it. The advice at the workshop was encouraging and thoughtful, but I knew I wasn’t ready to do the work necessary to transform a good draft into the story I thought it could be. I thought about it during that time, and how to make the changes, all without touching the document again until I thought I was ready.
Learn to recognize the stories you aren’t ready to write yet. Incubate them and write other things. I asked Nebula and World Fantasy Award winner Alyssa Wong about this, and she said, “Sometimes a story isn’t done until it is. And sometimes, you have to grow into the kind of writer who can write the story you need to tell, and that can take a long time. ‘Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers’ took three years for me to figure out; I’ve been working on another since 2013, and I still haven’t cracked it. And that’s okay. I’m patient, because I’d rather tell the story as it needs to be told, rather than in a form that I’m not satisfied with (I’ve done that too). I think it’s natural to worry about whether or not you’re writing fast enough. But it’s also important to be proud of your work, and I only send out a story when I know I can be proud of it.”
Seanan McGuire wrote a series of tweets recently in which she said that, though she’s a prolific author, “what sometimes seems to come as a surprise is the part where not every book can be written the second I think of it. Some books require me to do other things first. They need me to get BETTER.”
Think of the personal satisfaction you’ll feel completing a story that went beyond your initial idea to ask the next question, and the next, to probe edges, to delve deeper. The story you had time to read out loud, to edit not just for spelling errors but for rhythm, for language, for lyrical truth. The story with the first line that you found after writing the last line and realizing you could cut the first two paragraphs entirely. The story with the last sentence that makes you weep for its perfection.
In a 2016 interview with Meghan McCarron, Ted Chiang said, “As for advice to slow writers, I’d say that writing is not a race. This isn’t a situation where only the most prolific writers get an audience; publish your story when you’re ready, and it will find readers.”
The temptation is there. A story out the door is a potential sale. Everyone wants to check off the bingo square that says “three professional sales,” and “ten professional sales,” etc. Each sale is its own rush, as is publication day, and slow fiction means those come less often. Still, there’s something to be said for fewer, better stories.
We all wind up against immovable dates. Deadlines abound, and it’s easy to wind up in the position of constantly writing up to them. They’re everywhere: magazines with narrow windows, themed anthologies with open submissions, solicited stories I’ve agreed to write only to have the deadline settle its weighty body up against my subconscious.
“It’s okay,” I console myself. “You write clean first drafts.”
I remind myself of Heinlein’s rules, which I mostly agree with except for “you must refrain from rewriting,” and of Bradbury’s, which I prefer. I hit my word count, do an editing pass, and send it out the door, and a week later (if I’m lucky) or when the magazine comes out (if I’m not) I realize what I could have done with the story given more time.
My goal is to make those rushed stories the exception, rather than the rule. I’ve come around to the theory that those situations come up and need to be handled, but most stories are better for a little aging. (First draft essay simile: every story is better for a little aging, like a fine wine. Second draft essay: Wine is a boring comparison. Look up the effect of aging on meat. Is that a better comparison? Third draft: Or a stout! How many people even know you can age a stout? They develop nuances of flavor that blah blah blah . . .) Michael R. Underwood carried my simile forward, pointing out that there’s a difference between folding herbs into a recipe and adding them in after it’s cooked.
No, as long as I’m looking to classic SF writers for inspiration, I think I’m better off with Ursula K. Le Guin (when am I not?). On her website’s FAQ, she answered the question “Do you revise many times?” with “As many times as necessary. With one story or novel, this may be five false starts and six or eight or ten full rewrites, beginning to end. With the next, it may mean just going back through it and over it fiddling details until I think it’s as good as I can get it.”
Or I can go with Sturgeon’s “ask the next question.” That’s what my first-draft-and-out-the-door stories lack. A first draft has all the shine of the original inspiration, if I’m lucky enough to have removed it from my head intact, but it’s often superficial. It has good bones, some turns of phrase I’m pleased with, characters and structure that carried me through. And yet it often lacks depth. The “why” or the “and then” to the “what if?”
A story I’ve finished without rush has time to go to one of my critique partners. Every story that I’ve put in front of other readers before sending it out is better for the extra travel. A beta reader is not in my head, and thus can only rely on what they see in front of them. They can answer the question of whether the idea survived the trip to the page far better than I can. An editor told me he can always tell which stories were sent out half-baked, and which were seen by beta readers.
We all miss things. We bring our own baggage, our own background. Things that seem obvious to us are not necessarily obvious to others, or vice versa. You described the people who ride the bus, but what about the driver? Problems I didn’t foresee, contradictory actions, sensitivity reads. Think of all the pain you can save both yourself and your readers if you give yourself a chance to notice the stereotype you accidentally reinforced. You didn’t mean to do it. You thought the metaphor was a clever one.
More than that. A week later, two weeks later, I’ll be out for a run, and realize that a character should do THIS instead of THAT, or I should add a line about so and so. It’s sometimes possible to do this in copy edits, but why risk it? Give yourself a chance to think about the story, but also not to think about it. To let it sit in the back of your brain instead of the front.
There’s a difference between aging a story and sitting on a story. I’m not advocating holding onto it until your topical story becomes obsolete, or your deadline flatlines. I’m advocating letting it become a thing of craft instead of solely inspiration. A chance to level up. A collaboration between current you and future you.
Welcome to the Slow Fiction Movement.
Sarah Pinsker is the author of the Nebula winning novelette, "Our Lady of the Open Road" and the Theodore Sturgeon Award winning novelette, "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind." Her stories have appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Uncanny, among others, as well as numerous anthologies, and have been nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Eugie Foster awards. Her first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea: Stories will be published by Small Beer Press in March 2019, followed by a novel, Song For A New Day, September 2019 from Ace/Berkley. She lives with her wife and dog in Baltimore, Maryland.